Monday, January 15, 2007


I would like to share with you an abridged e-mail I received from a teacher-in-training who was reading my first book:

"It won't be long before I'm a teacher now, and thinking like that is scary. I mean, pre-service classes can only prepare you so much and then all of a sudden you've got to fly on your own. I was really scared at first because I thought, 'I'll never be that awesome.' And then I continued reading and I thought, 'YOU CAN DO THAT KIND OF CREATIVE STUFF IN THE CLASSROOM!?!?!?' And the more and more I read, the more excited I got for my future. I have big plans. I always have, but after all of the paperwork and guidelines I have to follow in my classes, I forget that teachers can be imaginative and fun. Sometimes when I think about my first year teaching all I see are those signs you see when a place in a book is haunted: 'Turn back,' and 'I wouldn't go on if I were you.' I hear horror stories from seasoned teachers about how hard it is your first year and how especially [in city schools] you're in constant fear of losing your job. I worry about all this, but then when I'm in a classroom teaching, there is magic that happens. A connection with a student that melts my worries away. Someone tells me they wish I didn't have to leave. And then I'm determined again. If the students have confidence in me I should have confidence in myself."

I think this a very important and provocative letter, not only for the high note of hope, but that such a note would rise and sing out amidst the cacophony of her candor. The author of this letter is far from alone; I frequently receive e-mails andsnail mail from teachers, pre-service teachers in particular, that speak of being discouraged before they even get out of the gate, of a lack of confidence...and also, as this educator describes, the renewed hope and vision that is granted through the experience of reading, garnered certainly not only through my books, but through many books.

I am moved by this letter to offer a reminder to educators that a knowledge of children's literature, in combination with a mastery of classroom management techniques, are two of your most powerful tools. While many programs offer a lot of support for classroom management, few preparatory programs offer real training in children's literature, or offer one class as an elective. Such introductions are rarely sufficient. Entering a classroom without a firm groundwork of children's literature is like expecting a mechanic to work without a wrench, or a surgeon to work without a scalpel.

The more that you know about what books are available, the more you are able to individualize instruction, reaching and teaching the children who need it the most. The more you are able to utlilize best practices, like read-aloud throughout the grade levels. The more you are able to integrate subjects, showing children the interconnectedness of all subjects and cultivating an attitude that school is relevant to the real world. And speaking of, you are able to cultivate interest, empathy, enthusiasm; elements of the kind of world we all want to live in. A knowledge of children's literature expands the map of where you can go with your class, far beyond the boundaries of tests, prescriptions and mandates, while still allowing you the confidence that your students will have the critical thinking skills to achieve at any task. In the midst of it all, a knowledge of children's literature prevents the notorious burn-out; your next lesson is as fresh as the next great book, and goodness knows we have no shortage of that! You need the best books, and the children deserve them, so if this knowledge is not handed to you, you are lucky...there are more places than ever to find what you need independently (the blogosphere being among them). "You can do that kind of creative stuff in the classroom?" Yes, you can!

And with that in mind, I offer up a particularly wonderful new Book-of-the-Day, exactly the kind of gem that shines in a classroom:

RICKSHAW GIRL by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan (Charlesbridge)
As I read this book over winter break, the shocking thought came over me like a slow-rising sun: "I can't wait to get back to school and read this aloud!" I actually went to the calendar and counted the days before I could introduce children 8 and up to the brave and resourceful (if sometimes impulsive) Naima. By painting delicate and award-winning alpana patterns on her Bangladeshi home for special celebrations, this little girl has brought pride to her family, but what she really longs to do is help her father earn money. Each passing day her friend Saleem passes in his rickshaw, and each passing day also distances her from him, Naima's role as a young woman in her village becoming more pronounced and more frustrating. When she tries to maneuver her father's beautiful, newly-painted rickshaw, it appears she has brought rack and ruin to her family, possibly even causing her mother to sell a cherished bangle that has been passed down through generations. Dressed as a boy, she tries to create a new solution that will prevent further hardship, and in doing so is surprised to discover that new solutions are emerging, and from her own gender.

This book is beautifully and universally written, playing skillfully on all children's desires to be helpful to their families, and their natural propencities to rally against the unjust. Though there is some regional vocabulary, the writing is so sparkling clear that it can be comprehended in context, though a partially illustrated glossary is also included. Terse pacingmakes for a perfectly cliffhanging read-aloud, and descriptive prowess brings every scene to life. Gracefully drawn charcoal spot illustrations that suggest the paper's texture are a perfect accent to the story. Use this realistic tale to springboard into discussions of whether boys and girls can really do the same things, and also as a way to introduce the very modern and important idea of microlending programs (a new economic model that earned Mohammed Yunus a recent Nobel Peace Prize), through which children will be delighted to discover they can make a huge difference in the world, even with a few coins. My own favorite microlending program is through Women for Women International, though many programs are available.

On a personal note:
I have lovely news to share: my newest novel, VIVE LA PARIS, was the recipient of the silver medal of the Sydney Taylor Book Award, a commendation recognizing the best in Jewish children's literature, given by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL). Medals are awarded annually for outstanding books that authentically portray the Jewish experience. The award was established in 1968, and was named in memory of Sydney Taylor, author of the classic ALL OF A KIND FAMILY series. The Sydney Taylor Book Award recognizes the best in Judaic children's literature each year, and I am especially pleased to be runner-up to a brilliant new author, friend and fellow Chicagoan, Brenda Ferber, for her book JULIA'S KITCHEN, an astounding story of healing after loss. Visit the AJL website to view all of the medalists and honor books, and the great company I am keeping!

I am especially proud to receive an award carrying the name of the great
Sydney Taylor, who wrote such brilliant and authentic realistic fiction. Most of all, I am so proud of the Association of Jewish Libraries who gave this award to my book. Though my protagonist, Paris McCray, is helped and changed by her Jewish piano teacher, Paris is African-American. In my mind, Paris is on a quest to learn how to be her brother's keeper, but it has been brought to my attention that by doing so, she is practicing the principles of tikkun olam, or trying to heal the world. I am proud of the AJL for celebrating my book even though its central character is not conventionally Jewish, and without any particular regard to my personal race or ethnic background. In time for the birthday of Martin Luther King, who preached that we should judge one another by the content of our character, I was overjoyed to have my book judged by its contents and its characters. THANK YOU, AJL!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your award!! I had just read about that one!

mbpbooks said...

Hooray for Vive La Paris, and for Sydney Taylor, one of my literary mothers. And thanks for the wonderful words about Rickshaw Girl -- it thrills my heart to picture teachers reading the book aloud in the classroom!

Anonymous said...

Hey Esme,
Thanks for the shout out! I'm so glad Vive La Paris got an award for all the reasons you stated. I'll never forget reading your lovely book on an airplane, laughing, crying, and hoping the person sitting next to me didn't think I was a total loon!
Lots of love,

SilberBook-Blog said...

Congratulations Esme!


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